Although the Toyota Corolla is one of the world’s bestselling automotive nameplates, it’s not one that generally arouses much enthusiast interest. Twenty years ago, however, the Corolla Levin coupe and its near-twin, the Sprinter Trueno, were sporty rear-wheel-drive cars that are still coveted by street racers today. We’ll get to the legendary AE86 in part two. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the history of the early DOHC Corolla and Sprinter coupes, their Yamaha-developed 2T-G engine, and the more mundane cars on which they were based.
THE FIRST COROLLA
The Toyota Corolla has been so long established as the definitive reliable-but-dull automotive appliance that it might seem hard to believe that when it first debuted back in 1966, Toyota pitched the Corolla as something of a sporty car.
That’s not to say the original KE10 Corolla 1100 was a sports car; there was nothing particularly exotic about its performance or specifications, although an 11th-hour decision to expand engine displacement to 1,077 cc (66 cu. in.) gave the Corolla a commercially useful edge of 89 cc (5 cu. in.) and about 4 PS (3 kW) over the new Datsun B10 Sunny. Rather, the Corolla was sporty in the way a contemporary six-cylinder Ford Mustang was sporty: There were standard bucket seats, the shifter for the four-speed transmission was on the floor rather than the steering column, and the sparse instrumentation was set into round pods — little touches that made the Corolla feel like more than mere basic transportation.
Toyota had already tried the basic transportation approach with the UP10 Publica, launched in 1961 in response to a proposal from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) for a low-cost “people’s car” to put Japan on wheels. The Publica quickly demonstrated that lower prices did not necessarily translate into huge sales. It was not a complete commercial disaster, but neither was it the breakout hit for which Toyota had hoped. The UP10 wasn’t a bad car for what it was, but anyone who could afford better wasn’t likely to give it a second thought, which also limited the Publica’s aspirational appeal for less affluent buyers. Toyota tried to add some interest with a convertible version and the peculiar-looking Sports 800 derivative, but neither had much impact.
Still searching for the optimum balance between affordability and desirability, Toyota developed the Corolla as a follow-on to the Publica. The new model was positioned as a somewhat larger and more upscale product, albeit smaller, cheaper, and more economical than Toyota’s contemporary Toyopet Corona.
The first Corolla 1100 sedan was fairly straightforward, offering one engine, one body style (a two-door sedan), and three trim levels with prices ranging from ¥438,000 to ¥495,000 ($1,215 to $1,375 at the contemporary exchange rate). However, Toyota wasted little time adding additional body styles, more trim levels, and options like front disc brakes and two-speed Toyoglide automatic. Before long, there were also more powerful engines — up to 77 PS (57 kW) from the dual-carburetor 1,166 cc (71 cu. in.) 3K-B, added late in the model run.
All this was a huge financial gamble for Toyota, involving the construction of two entirely new factories, but the bet paid off. Unlike the Publica, the first Corolla was a breakout success, for a time becoming Japan’s bestselling car. It briefly lost that title to the new Toyopet Corona Mark II in 1968, but regained the lead in 1969 and held it for more than 30 years.
A few Corollas made their way overseas almost from the beginning, but Corolla exports began in earnest in early 1968, with both complete cars and CKD (complete knocked down) kits for local assembly in markets like Australia and New Zealand. The Corolla began arriving in English-speaking markets that spring, with a low starting price (under $1,700 in the U.S.) and generally positive reviews.
By contemporary small-car standards, the Corolla’s ride and handling were no better than average, particularly with bias-ply tires, and there was no great abundance of head or leg room for the long of leg. However, performance was decent (top speed was about 85 mph — 135 km/h), fuel economy was excellent, detail finish and assembly quality were quite good, and the price was right. That was an agreeable compromise for many buyers, particularly since the Corolla soon developed a commendable record for mechanical reliability (albeit not corrosion resistance).
In all, Toyota sold nearly a million KE10 Corollas in less than four years, an annual average that wasn’t far from the total of all Japanese passenger car production when the Corolla was first conceived in 1963. It was a sign of things to come.
For what happened next to make sense, it’s necessary to first examine one of the more unusual aspects of Toyota’s Japanese domestic market (JDM) business: its multiple dealer networks.
Our American and British readers are accustomed to automakers having multiple brands with separate dealer networks. Many of these are legacies of past mergers and acquisitions by previously independent automakers while others, like Honda’s North America-only Acura brand, are attempts to branch out into new market segments. Toyota’s home-market sales channels evolved in quite a different way, stemming from the unique circumstances of the postwar Japanese auto business.
The market for passenger cars in Japan evolved quite slowly compared to many other nations. Although the first completely Japanese-made automobile was built in 1904, until the late 1950s, passenger cars represented a very small percentage of the domestic auto industry. Consequently, until the fifties, Japan had few automotive dealerships and most of their business was in truck sales to commercial buyers.
During World War II, the Japanese government not only imposed controls on car and truck production, but actually went so far as to consolidate all automotive distribution into a single national chain not bounded by any one brand or manufacturer affiliation. After the Japanese surrender, the Allied occupation force, keen to break prewar monopolies, quickly did away with this central organization, leaving individual dealers to fend for themselves.
Seeing an obvious opportunity, Toyota sales boss Shotaro Kamiya scrambled to sign as many of those newly independent dealerships as he could, including some previously affiliated with other makes. His recruitment drive gave Toyota the largest postwar sales network in Japan, although that still didn’t amount to very many dealers: fewer than 50 nationwide (albeit many with multiple outlets). Initially, that was hardly a problem, since materials were in short supply and most production was still restricted to trucks; the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers finally lifted the restrictions on passenger car production in late 1949. Toyota was struggling, and only survived 1949–1950 through the intervention of the Bank of Japan and a painful downsizing.
By the mid-fifties, the worst was over and Toyota was growing rapidly. As the company prepared to shift focus to passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, however, it quickly became clear that significantly expanding sales would require additional retail outlets. The dilemma was that Kamiya’s postwar dealer recruitment drive had given each of Toyota’s existing franchise holders exclusive distribution rights over very large territories, in some cases encompassing entire prefectures.
Kamiya’s eventual solution was to establish new sales channels that could sell their own franchises. The first of these new channels, established in 1956, was called Toyopet, followed about a year later by Toyota Diesel. In 1961, these were joined by an additional channel selling the new Publica (and, five years later, the Corolla).
As you might imagine, Toyota’s existing franchise holders were none too happy about the idea of new Toyota stores within existing sales territories. Kamiya managed to placate the dealers by allowing them to purchase minority interests in the new stores, giving established retailers the opportunity to profit from the additional outlets, but not absorb them. In later years, there would also be an effort to limit model overlap so as to minimize direct competition between stores, although in the early days, Toyota and Toyopet Stores sold many of the same products.
The multiple channels were not a GM-style hierarchy and, unlike the company’s later Lexus and Scion divisions, did not necessarily reflect different branding. The Toyopet name, for example, had existed well before the first Toyopet dealerships and both Toyota and Toyopet Stores sold Toyopet-branded cars and trucks until Toyota phased out that brand in the late seventies. Beginning with the launch of the Publica in 1961, Toyota did to some extent use the separate channels as a way of targeting different buyer demographics, but the principal goal was simply to increase sales volume by allowing Toyota to first double and then triple its dealer base.
If you’re not confused already, we should add that during this period, Toyota’s sales organization was actually a separate company, Toyota Motor Sales Co., Ltd., of which Kamiya was president. The sales organization had been spun off at the insistence of the banks during Toyota’s 1950 reorganization; the rationale is cryptic, but we assume the goal was to enable Toyota’s valuable dealer network to survive even if the struggling manufacturing business did not. Toyota Motor Company and Toyota Motor Sales were not formally reunited until 1982, spending the intervening 32 years in what former Toyota president Eiji Toyoda later characterized as an interdependent but often contentious relationship.
THE COROLLA AND THE SPRINTER
While the KE10 Corolla was an immediate success, the pace of its early sales demonstrated that Toyota could sell even more cars by adding more stores. The answer was yet another sales channel, Toyota Auto, whose first outlets opened for business in November 1967. The new channel expanded Toyota’s JDM dealer base by a further 20%.
Like the existing Publica network (which changed its name to Corolla in March 1969), Toyota Auto Stores initially sold Publicas and Corollas, but the new Auto dealerships offered an additional variant Publica Stores did not: the KE15 Corolla Sprinter, a semi-fastback coupe based on the KE10 Corolla sedan, sharing the same engines and running gear and costing only a little more.
All this did wonders for Corolla sales, but we don’t imagine it sat well with established Publica/Corolla dealers, who not only had to face additional competition for sales of Toyota’s most popular model, but were also denied the new coupe. However, this was only a temporary expedient; Toyota had already conceived a more complete solution.
The new Takaoka assembly plant where the Corolla was built had capacity to spare, but more importantly, the factory also boasted a full array of sophisticated automated manufacturing equipment and a computer-controlled production management system. All of this facilitated Toyota’s now well-known “just-in-time” production strategy, wherein small batches of individual components are manufactured to order and delivered just as they are to be installed. Aside from minimizing parts stockpiles and the need for warehousing, the just-in-time system made it relatively economical for Toyota to build multiple variations of the same car or truck on the same lines. Adding different front clips to certain versions of a car, for example, was just a matter of scheduling and wasn’t vastly more expensive than building a comparable number of identical cars.
In early 1970, Toyota used this technique to spin off the second-generation E25 Sprinter as a separate model sharing the second-generation Corolla platform and running gear, but with distinct styling and no Corolla identification. At the same time, Corolla Stores received a new second-generation Corolla coupe, no longer badged as a Sprinter.
A little over a year later, Toyota Auto Stores introduced a new Sprinter sedan, based mechanically on the E20 Corolla sedan and stylistically on the Sprinter coupe. In subsequent generations, the Sprinter would become a full model line offering most of the same body styles and equipment available for the Corolla, distinguished by variations in styling, trim, and equipment. The Sprinter versions were usually a bit more expensive, but probably not enough so to sway a buyer one way or the other.
This was a strategy Toyota would employ repeatedly over the next three decades, allowing the company to increase its production volume and thus maximize its return on its tooling investment while reinforcing the nominal individuality of the different retail channels. How comfortable individual dealers were with this approach we don’t know, but it clearly paid off for Toyota in both sales and market share. By the eighties, most Japanese automakers had followed suit, albeit not necessarily with the same degree of success.
Since the multiple dealer channels were the result of a situation peculiar to postwar Japan, these convolutions were not reflected in Toyota’s various export markets. Overseas customers were usually offered only a smattering of Toyota’s JDM models, not always badged the same way those cars were sold in Japan and usually with a much more limited range of models, engines, and options than were available to Japanese buyers.
If your impression of Japanese cars of the seventies and eighties is based on the automakers’ typical export strategy — a few body styles in a small number of generally well-equipped trim levels with few (if any) standalone options — then flipping through a complete list of Toyota’s home-market lineup during that period is likely to be a bewildering experience. At home, Toyota took full advantage of its just-in-time production strategy to offer popular models in dozens of variations that could be multiplied even further with the options list.
As two of Toyota’s bestselling models, the Corolla and Sprinter were not exempt from this proliferation. If you were so inclined, you could still order a stripped, price-leader two-door Corolla 1200 sedan, but Corolla and Toyota Auto Stores were also more than happy to sell you plusher, pricier versions with more convenience items and/or bigger engines. Toyota didn’t try to cram its bigger R-system or M-system engines into the Corolla or Sprinter, but the 1200’s 1,166 cc (71 cu. in.) 3K engine (the earlier 1100 had been dropped) was soon supplemented by the bigger T-system engine in 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) and later 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) sizes, each offered in several states of tune. Depending on engine and trim level, you also had a choice of four- or five-speed manual transmission, two- or three-speed Toyoglide, and a lengthy list of optional equipment.
These mechanical permutations were overshadowed by the myriad body styles that emerged during the third generation. When the third-generation E30 Corolla and E40 Sprinter were launched in 1974, the Corolla was offered as a two- or four-door sedan, two-door hardtop, and two-door station wagon/van. The Sprinter, meanwhile, was available as a four-door sedan or semi-fastback coupe, the sedan essentially constituting an additional variation of the Corolla four-door and the coupe having its own more-or-less unique body shell. Later in the run, the facelifted E60 Sprinter added its own version of the Corolla two-door hardtop, the updated E50 Corolla gained its own version of the coupe, and both lines added new three-door Liftback bodies, which were based on the larger coupe shell.
By 1978, there were more than 75 different variations of the JDM Corolla and Sprinter, all riding the same platform, sharing the same running gear, and built on the same assembly lines. If that still fell short of the diversity of some American car lines during Detroit’s heyday, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Such variety helps to put into perspective the Corolla’s enormous sales success and continuing status as Japan’s bestselling car line. The Corolla wasn’t so much a car as cars.
THE 2T-G ENGINE AND THE TE27 LEVIN AND TRUENO
For enthusiasts, the most interesting of the many Corolla and Sprinter variants were undoubtedly the performance versions, added midway through the second generation.
As we mentioned, the new T-system was added to the Corolla and Sprinter in mid-1970. The T engine was an OHV four with oversquare dimensions, an iron block, and a crossflow aluminum head with hemispherical combustion chambers. Initially, the Corolla and Sprinter offered only the basic 1,407 cc (86 cu. in.) Type T and T-D (high-compression) versions of this engine, but later that year, Toyota created a larger 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T version for the new Carina and Celica, offering 100 PS JIS (73 kW) with a single carburetor or 105 PS (77 kW) in dual-carburetor 2T-B form. A federalized 2T-C version of the single-carb engine became available on U.S. Corollas in the spring of 1971, rated at 102 (gross) hp SAE (76 kW).
The 2T was basically a T engine bored out another 5 mm (0.2 inches), but the Celica GT had a special 2T-G version with a new aluminum head, designed for Toyota by Yamaha, that featured not only hemispherical combustion chambers, but also chain-driven dual overhead camshafts. English Ford fans will immediately recognize the parallel with the Lotus DOHC conversion of Ford’s Kent crossflow engine. The Japanese engine provided comparable output: With a 9.8:1 compression ratio and two 40mm Solex carburetors, the 2T-G was rated at 115 PS JIS (85 kW) while the 1,558 cc (95 cu. in.) Lotus engine boasted either 115 gross horsepower (86 kW) or 110 hp net (82 kW). (For reasons we don’t claim to understand, 2T-G engines sold in Europe initially carried U.S.-style SAE gross ratings of 124 hp (93 kW) and 113 lb-ft (153 N-m) of torque in high-compression form.)
The 2T-G was initially a Celica exclusive, but the twin-cam engine was added to the Carina line in mid-1971. Around that time, an enthusiast on the Corolla development team proposed that they also install the 2T-G in the Corolla and Sprinter, which shared the Celica/Carina front suspension and were already available with lesser versions of the T-system engine. Since the combination required little in the way of new components and had clear commercial potential, Corolla development chief Shiro Sasaki approved and Corolla and Sprinter coupes with the 2T-G engine and five-speed gearbox went on sale in March 1972. Their introduction gave Toyota an answer to compact sporty rivals like the Mazda Savanna RE (a.k.a. RX-3) and Mitsubishi Colt Galant FTO.
While Carina buyers could eventually order the 2T-G engine in sedans as well as hardtops, Corollas and Sprinters so equipped were offered only in coupe form. The twin-cam models were christened Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno respectively. (“Levin” is a variation of a Middle English word for lightning, while “trueño” is the Spanish word for thunder.) To go along with their more powerful engines and five-speed transmissions, the Levin and Trueno had firmer suspensions, front disc brakes, larger rear drums, and radial tires (still optional on other models). Interior trim was also dressed up accordingly.
That equipment added weight, but the TE27 Levin and Trueno still weighed close to 200 lb (85 kg) less than a Celica 1600GT with the same engine. Claimed top speed was 118 mph (190 km/h), identical to that of the Celica, but the TE27 cars were naturally quicker. We don’t have independent road test data, but Toyota claimed the twin-cam TE27 cars could cover 400 meters (8 feet less than a quarter mile) from a standing start in 16.3 seconds, suggesting a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) sprint of less than 9 seconds — hot stuff by contemporary Japanese or European standards. The Levin and Trueno also leaned less and had considerably more cornering grip than the standard Corolla, which was on the floppy side. However, understeer was still heavy, the recirculating ball steering remained a bit sloppy, and the ride was now uncomfortably stiff.
Continuing the English Ford analogy, the Levin and Trueno were loosely analogous to the Lotus-engined Mk1 Ford Escort TC, but Toyota itself had offered an earlier antecedent: the 1967–1968 RT55 Toyota 1600GT, essentially an RT51 Corona hardtop powered by the Yamaha-developed 9R engine, a twin-cam conversion of the Corona’s 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) 4R pushrod engine. The 1600GT was Toyota’s second DOHC production car, debuting at about the same time as the production version of the 2000GT sports car, another Yamaha project. Fewer than 2,300 examples of the 1600GT were built, but they quickly achieved great competition success, much like the original Lotus Cortina.
The TE27 Levin and Trueno were expensive for this class, with list prices starting at ¥813,000 (around $2,700), nearly twice as much as a stripped Corolla 1200 two-door sedan and about 20% more than a Mazda Savanna coupe, probably their most obvious rival. As a result, the Levin and Trueno accounted for only a tiny slice of the Corolla and Sprinter’s JDM sales. However, the twin-cam models were a useful image-booster and sold more than enough for homologation purposes. Like the aforementioned RT55 1600GT and twin-cam Escort, the DOHC TE27 had obvious appeal for sedan racing and rallying, and not just in Japan. Toyota Team Europe used a TE27 Corolla Levin in the team’s first World Rally Championship season, winning the 1975 1000 Lakes Rally.
Surprisingly, Toyota exported the twin-cam Corolla and Sprinter very little in this or the two succeeding generations. U.S. buyers had to settle for the Corolla SR-5, which combined the Corolla Levin’s body and suspension modifications with the same 88 hp (SAE net; 66 kW) 2T-C engine as other U.S. Corollas. We assume the main reason the 2T-G engine was never offered in the U.S. was emission standards (something that would shortly become an issue in Japan as well), but as far as we’ve been able to determine, the twin-cam Levin and Trueno weren’t exported to Australia or the U.K. and were offered only on a limited basis in European markets. Price may have been the main deterrent. The twin-cam Celica hadn’t sold especially well in Europe, perhaps because a DOHC Celica GT cost almost 30% more than a pushrod 1600ST.
THE EMISSIONS ISSUE
The Levin and Trueno returned for the third-generation E30 Corolla and E40 Sprinter, launched in April 1974. Toyota now offered the new Sprinter Trueno in both plain and better-equipped GT editions, the latter featuring tape stripes and some additional convenience features.
Either way, the mechanical package was much the same as the TE27’s, although the new models’ greater weight presumably took a toll on performance. The high-compression 2T-G engine was still available as a no-cost option, but the low-compression 2T-GR was now standard, a response to the decreased availability of leaded premium fuel. (All regular-grade gasoline in Japan would be unleaded by early 1975.)
The phase-out of leaded gasoline was a sign of things to come. Japan lagged a few years behind the U.S. in adopting national emissions standards, but worsening air quality in major cities led to public pressure for controls on automotive emissions. Despite protests from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) — whose president at that time was Eiji Toyoda — Japan’s first interim national standards went into effect in April 1973 with stricter rules following in 1976 and 1978. The latter were inspired by, though not identical to, contemporary U.S. federal standards.
At the end of 1975, Toyota was obliged to drop the various models with the 2T-G engine (which included the Corolla Levin, Sprinter Trueno, Carina 1600GT, and Celica 1600GT) because they were incapable of meeting the 1976 emissions standards. This turned out to be a temporary measure; the twin-cam engine returned in 1977 as the 2T-GEU, now with electronic fuel injection (a Bosch L-Jetronic system made under license by Nippon Denso) and an air injection pump. The air pump and the need to subsist on regular unleaded gasoline (requiring a lower 8.4:1 compression ratio) reduced output to 110 PS JIS (81 kW), but by late 1978, the thermal reactor was superseded by a three-way catalytic converter, restoring advertised output to 115 PS JIS (85 kW) and 109 lb-ft (147 N-m) of torque, fractionally stronger than the carbureted engine.
Because the Corolla and Sprinter had continued to gain weight throughout the third generation, the fuel-injected Levin and Trueno were still undoubtedly slower than the original TE27 editions. One consolation was that by 1978, the 2T-GEU and its associated equipment were now available with the new Corolla and Sprinter Liftback bodies as well as coupes, although the Liftbacks were badged as GTs rather than Truenos or Levins.
THE E70 COROLLA AND SPRINTER
Despite the headaches caused by early emissions control devices (which affected Japanese cars much as similar devices had U.S. and Australian cars), the Corolla remained a commercial powerhouse. By the end of the third generation in early 1979, total worldwide Corolla sales had topped 7 million units.
Over the years, the Corolla had grown (literally as well as figuratively) into an unexciting middle-of-the-road compact family sedan. The Levin and Trueno not withstanding, most Corollas and Sprinters were resolutely conservative in their engineering. For all the steady growth and the proliferation of models and options, the basic specifications had changed little over the years: carbureted pushrod engines (except for the 2T-GEU), MacPherson struts and recirculating ball steering up front, a live axle on semi-elliptical leaf springs in back, and of course rear-wheel drive. Throughout most of the seventies, cheaper JDM models still had four-wheel drum brakes and bias-ply tires, although front discs and radial tires gradually spread throughout the line.
The fourth-generation E70 Corolla and Sprinter, launched in Japan in March 1979 and a year or more later in export markets, continued the familiar formula with a number of significant refinements. One was standard front disc brakes. Another was a new rear suspension with coils instead of leaf springs and axle location by four trailing arms and a Panhard rod. The new suspension was prompted at least in part by European criticism of the outgoing Corolla’s primitive cart springs, but Toyota had been using a trailing arm/coil spring setup on the larger Corona and Carina for more than eight years, so it was hardly a radical leap; the rival Nissan Sunny had switched to a four-link axle the year before. In any case, the new suspension reduced harshness and allowed better axle control even with relatively soft springs.
Another addition, albeit not across the board, was rack-and-pinion steering. Curiously, this was offered only on the cheaper 1300 and later the 1500 models; cars with bigger engines retained the older recirculating ball layout. The press speculated that this was a packaging issue, but according to Corolla chief engineer Fumio Agetsuma, it was actually a compromise driven by consumer preference. While rack-and-pinion steering is more precise, it also transmits more road shock than does a recirculating ball layout, compromising the big-car feel Corolla customers had come to expect. We assume the logic of introducing rack-and-pinion steering first on the cheapest models was that repeat customers who wanted their new Corolla to be more of the same would be more likely to gravitate toward the more expensive, bigger-engined versions while the cheaper models were more likely to be sold to new buyers with fewer preconceptions.
Many Corollas and Sprinters still retained pushrod engines, but in Japan, the midrange 1400 was replaced by a new 1500 powered by the 1,452 cc (87 cu. in.) 3A-U, the latest development of the new A-system engine introduced six months earlier on the FWD Tercel and Corsa. Like the earlier T-system engine, the Type A engine had an aluminum head on an iron block, albeit lighter and more compact than before and with a belt-driven overhead camshaft instead of pushrods — the Corolla’s first mass-market OHC engine. In Japan, the 1500 also replaced the OHV 1600, but the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) 2T-C pushrod engine remained available in export markets. A few months after launch, there was also a new 1800 pushrod engine, the 1,770 cu. in. (108 cu. in.) 13T-U, with 95 PS JIS (70 kW). A federalized version of that engine, called the 3T-C, was standard on all U.S. Corollas from 1980 to 1982.
The DOHC 2T-GEU engine continued unchanged for JDM Levin, Trueno, and GT models, again with electronic fuel injection and catalytic converters. Export versions for markets with less-restrictive emissions standards had no catalysts and retained the original dual-carburetor 2T-G, later allowing the carbureted version to be homologated for Group A competition.
For all the changes, the “cooking” versions of the new Corolla and Sprinter still felt much like their predecessors. Except for the occasional emissions-control-related hiccup, the Corolla and Sprinter were painless to drive, but lacked the agility of contemporary rivals like the Honda Civic or RWD Ford Escort. That was at least partly by design; one of the things many Toyota customers both at home and abroad found endearing about the Corolla was that it felt bigger than it was, with light steering and a soft ride over reasonably smooth roads. The press, then as now more partial to sporty cars, complained of over-boosted brakes, steering that was numb and imprecise on center, substantial body lean, and axle tramp over bumpy roads (an annoyance the new suspension had mitigated but not completely erased).
With any of the pushrod engines, the Corolla and Sprinter’s straight-line performance wasn’t much to write home about either. The 1300 could be coaxed to perhaps 90 mph (145 km/h), but needed 15 seconds or more to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) even with manual shift. The uncatalyzed pushrod 1600 trimmed that time to the low-12-second range and put 100 mph (160 km/h) within reach, which was decent if hardly thrilling. U.S. cars had similar performance; the 3T-C engine, tuned for torque and low emissions rather than power, mustered no more than 75 hp SAE (56 kW).
On the other hand, many Corolla customers weren’t terribly concerned with sporty road manners. For most buyers, it was more important than the E70 retained the Corolla and Sprinter lines’ principal virtues: good fuel economy, an above-average repair record, and a painless ownership experience.
TE71 LEVIN AND TRUENO
By the late seventies, the mildly sporty air Toyota had cultivated for the original Corolla had been surrendered to the Celica sports coupe, which in Japan was sold through Corolla Stores. However, Japanese customers who found the standard E70 Corolla and Sprinter too sedate could still order the twin-cam 2T-GEU engine, which was now available on Liftbacks, hardtops, and four-door sedans as well as coupes. All DOHC models included not only a five-speed gearbox, stiffer springs and shocks, and wider radial tires, but also quick-ratio steering, a rear anti-roll bar, and four-wheel disc brakes. (The latter three items were also optional on JDM SR and SR coupes.) Only the twin-cam coupes were called Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno, but except for the narrower tires used on sedans, all 2T-GEU cars were mechanically identical save for the slight variations in weight between the different body styles.
The twin-cam cars were undoubtedly faster than lesser models, although even the lightest of the DOHC TE71 body styles was fully 220 lb (100 kg) heavier than the original TE27 Trueno and Levin, so the early cars were likely quicker. We assume the TE71 handled better than other E70 Corollas and Sprinters, but, lacking JDM road test data, we don’t know exactly how much better or at what cost in ride quality.
The cost in yen was much more obvious. The DOHC Corollas and Sprinters were cheaper than a Celica or Carina hardtop with the same engine, but nearly twice as expensive as a basic Corolla 1300, well into the territory of the new Mazda Savanna RX-7. The price of a new Sprinter Trueno GT would also put you into any number of bigger sedans with 2-liter engines. After launch, Toyota again tried to split the Levin and Trueno into cheaper S, standard, and better-equipped APEX versions, but the price differential wasn’t huge and sales remained mediocre, amounting to fewer than 25,000 units a year in all.
Still, with annual worldwide Corolla sales edging into seven figures, continuing to offer the DOHC cars was easy to justify. The cost probably wasn’t unreasonable; the components that weren’t standard Corolla/Sprinter stuff were either cheap or shared with other models. Beyond that, offering the twin-cam models added spice to the stew, keeping the Corolla and Sprinter competitive on the racetrack and helping to attract younger buyers to Corolla and Toyota Auto Stores, even if many of those customers ended up settling for a cheaper model.
In part two, we talk about the final rear-wheel-drive Corolla and Sprinter and the later history of the twin-cam Levin and Trueno.
The author would like to thank ‘ars666,’ Frank Dupre, Ingvar Hallström, John Howell, and ‘NTGpictures’ for their assistance with background information and images for this article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for the history of the Corolla, Sprinter, their rivals and antecedents, and Toyota itself included “A Dozen Small Wagons,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 2 (October 1973): 38–49; Arban, “RX3,” n.d., home.online. no/%7Earban/ RX3.html, accessed 21 February 2014; Tony Assenza, “Toyota Corolla GT-S,” Car and Driver Vol. 33, No. 8 (February 1988): 119–123; Automobiles 1959 (Tokyo, Japan: Motors Trade Association of Japan, 1959); “Autocar Road Test: Toyota Carina 1.6GL,” Autocar 27 April 1988: 48–55; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Auto ’90 Vol. 516 No. 1 (Fall 1989); “Autos Abroad: A new Lotus blossoms …” Car Life March 1963, reprinted in Lotus Elan 1963-1972 Collection No. 2, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1983): 5; “Auto Test: Toyota Corolla GT Coupe,” Autocar 21 April 1984: 38–43; “Auto Test: Toyota Corolla 1.3,” Autocar 15 March 1980: 48–53; “Auto Test: Triumph Dolomite Sprint: Britain shows the way,” Autocar 26 July 1973: 8–13; Ben Barry, “Toyota GT86 coupe (2012) CAR review,” CAR 28 October 2011, www.carmagazine. co.uk, accessed 6 February 2014; Patrick Bedard, “The Econohunks (Comparison Test),” Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 9 (March 1987): 42–53; Nicholas Bissoon-Dath, “Toyota MR2 Supercharged,” Car and Driver Vol. 33, No. 6 (December 1987), reprinted in Toyota MR2 1984-1988, ed. R.M. 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The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.
Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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15 CommentsAdd a Comment
Regarding your comment “…..like Honda’s U.S.-only Acura brand,….”, in fact, the Acura brand has been sold in Canada as well, since its inception in (as I recall) 1986 or 1987.
You’re absolutely right — that had slipped my mind completely. I’ve amended the text. Thanks!
The older Corolla is one of those cars that seemed to go from ubiquitous to non-existent in the blink of an eye. I seldom see a RWD Corolla on the road now and the rare times I do they are either rusted out or the victim of some truly horrible modifications. I really wish I took the opportunity to get a late RWD GTS before they all vanished. Drove one once and it was a blast – nearly as much fun as the original MR2 (another regret was not buying one of those when they ere only a few years old and easy to find in nice shape)
The RWD versions are definitely getting harder to find unmodified. Chalkbthat up to most being emissions exempt and also being so light weight that people use them to drag race or drift. The GTS Corollas can be had for a few grand now, I own a 3rd Gen SR5 that I am now in the process of modifying
Aaron, I will thank you for this article in advance of reading it (which I don’t have time for at the moment). I am a Japanese compact car nut and information dense, scholarly information is difficult to come by. Can’t wait ’til you get to the FWD series, including the 20-valve and E100 chassis cars we didn’t get in the states!
Yet another great article. Those KE15/17 pics bring back memories, as my brother had one around ’79/80. Would be fun to have now with the dual carb 3K-B
We have a 1970 Toyota Corolla Sprinter (fastback) 1200cc engine that my wife bought new. It is a sweet little car, and with the 12 inch tires (radials now) it drives like a go cart. We haven’t had it on the road in a few years, but shares dry storage with a couple of other cars in the stable. I never really remember seeing a lot of the sprinters, but was told by a Toyota dealership, there were not a lot brought into America. Does anyone know the production numbers of these sweet little gems?
I unfortunately don’t have detailed sales breakdowns for the Corolla and Sprinter. (I wish I did; it would have been very helpful.) I looked up the press release for the launch of the second-generation car in 1970, but while that includes sales projections that suggest how many Toyota was selling at that point, it doesn’t indicate how many had been sold to date. If Sprinter sales since 1968 were fairly consistent with those projections, the KE15/KE17 probably accounted for something between 15 and 20 percent of first-generation Corolla production. My very rough guess would be around 150,000 coupes in Japan and maybe 30,000 to 40,000 for export, give or take.
The dealer was probably correct that not many KE17 Sprinter 1200s were sold in the States. The Corolla was still finding its feet in this market and on top of that, the bigger engine wasn’t introduced until the final year of the first generation. The ’69 was sold only with the 1100.
I have a pre-facelift 72 TE27. Totally restored to original.
should you need any pics for illustrating any points of interest
I love these articles–the website is a treasure trove. You mentioned that there were five Toyota models whose names mean “crown”. There was the “Crown”, of course, and the Camry, which is a transliteration of the Japanese word for “crown”. Add Corolla, and you have three, and Corona is four. What’s the fifth one?
I was thinking of the Corona Mark II — a name they liked so much they used it twice! The “Corona” part of “Corona Mark II” eventually became silent, but persisted in Japan well after the Mark II became a clearly different car.
Perhaps you could compare the regular Corolla sedans to cars that sold well in other countries, the Chevrolet Impala in the USA, Ford Cortina in the UK, VW Beetle in Germany in one respect you alluded to in your text. That is offering a relatively painless car owning experience. Not unfailing reliability, although Impalas and Cortinas were less than bulletproof finding a shop that would fix them at at a reasonable cost was quite easy.
The point I think is most customers wanted an affordable, unpretentious, competent car that was unlikely to let them down. In their own way the examples I have given fitted the bill for their own markets. Toyotas trump card for maintaining sales for many years was developing and updating it and its enviable reputation for reliability, something Ford and Chevrolet never really had, and VW seem to have lost.
In all of the cases you mention, a key factor was low overall cost of ownership: a combination of modest operating costs and strong residuals. A lot of the Cortina’s British success, as I understand it, was that Ford was able to optimize its standardized cost-of-ownership numbers in a way that was like catnip for fleet sales managers. Similarly, a properly equipped sixties Impala, though rather thirsty by global standards and far from bulletproof, had a reputation for perceived quality that translated into very good resale values.
What’s significant about the Corolla in that regard is that Toyota managed to translate that into a variety of different global markets. An Impala was only cheap to own in the U.S. and perhaps to a lesser extent in Canada. I know Ford sold the Cortina in a variety of markets, but the only ones where it was a market leader were the U.K. and perhaps South Africa. (I don’t have any comparative overall sales figures for South Africa.) The Corolla was economical enough to be considered so in markets with higher fuel prices and lower incomes and was rugged enough to make a fair go of it in places where a breakdown was more complicated than having to drop the car at the local garage down the road.
I know car people tend to use “appliance-like” in a derogatory fashion, but in a lot of circumstances, it’s perfectly appropriate. For instance, if I’m purchasing a toaster, I just want it to be cheap and work when I need it to. Given two identically priced choices, I might choose a jaunty red one over the usual stainless-and-black number, but I’m not going to pay extra for attractive toaster design (especially if it seems to come at the expense of function), “soft-touch” controls that are going to break, or the like. It’s not unreasonable to approach cars in the same way.
thank you for this article, very informative. All I need now is to know how many hard tops were built and sold during the 3rd generation of the Corolla Levin. lol! I own one and seldom see them, even during Toyotafest meets.
I unfortunately don’t have any detailed production breakdowns. I looked, but my Japanese isn’t nearly good enough to find Japanese-language data, which might need to come directly from Toyota in any case. Sadly, their otherwise extremely comprehensive 75th anniversary history site, which did have extensive information on the development of the Corolla, did not include production breakouts. The closest I found was the production estimates in the launch press releases, which aren’t necessarily accurate, being pre-release estimates (although they do give some idea how well the outgoing model had been doing), and generally aren’t broken out by body style. If anyone knows of a good source for total production figures, I’d be glad to hear of it!